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Clock Ticks as Argentina's Macri Asks Congress to OK Creditors Deal

Argentina's President Mauricio Macri gestures as he speaks during the opening session of the 134th legislative term at the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 1, 2016.
Argentina's President Mauricio Macri gestures as he speaks during the opening session of the 134th legislative term at the Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 1, 2016.

Argentine President Mauricio Macri on Tuesday urged Congress to approve a landmark deal reached with creditors over defaulted debt, in order to comply with a U.S. court deadline and permit access to the financing needed to jumpstart Latin America's third largest economy.

Macri, less than three months in office, is likely to cobble together the votes needed to implement the deal announced on Monday to pay $4.65 billion "holdout" hedge funds that rejected steep cuts in repayment terms offered in the country's 2005 and 2010 bond restructurings.

The question is whether Congress will pass the deal before an April 14 deadline set by the U.S. court hearing the case.

Adding to the urgency, the local peso is plumbing record lows, 30-percent inflation is squeezing consumers, and Macri's approval ratings have taken a hit as he cuts the public payroll.

"We have been in default since 2002," Macri said. "I am counting on this Congress to end this conflict, which has lasted 15 years. I am sure you will meet this responsibility."

As he spoke, the local currency hit an all-time low of 16 to the U.S. dollar. Macri's address to both houses of Congress was interrupted by applause from allies and heckling from foes.

Some held up signs saying "Destruction of the State", in reference to recent public sector job cuts, and "Don't Mortgage the Future". The opposition is against Argentina's return to the global bond market, fearing a steep increase in indebtedness.

The country must settle the court case in order to launch Macri's economic recovery program. Elected in November on a free markets platform, he has lifted many of the controls that previous President Cristina Fernandez had put on the economy.

Miguel Angel Pichetto, a leader of moderate Peronists in the Senate, said earlier that the proposed deal with holdouts will not go to an immediate vote.

"The bill has to be studied carefully," he said, adding that he is likely to vote in favor.

Provincial governors, desperate for money needed to restore crumbling roads, are lobbying the Senate in favor of the deal.

But Senator Maria de los Angeles Sacnun, a staunch Fernandez ally, called the deal "an intrusion of our sovereignty."

The U.S. judge hearing the creditors' case said last month that he wants Congress to repeal the law banning the government from offering better terms than those included in Argentina's 2005 and 2010 debt restructurings. The holdouts rejected those restructurings and sued for full repayment in the U.S. courts.

The government wants to issue two or three new sovereign bonds on international markets for a total of up to $15 billion in April if lawmakers are swift in backing the accord.

Analysts and administration officials say he can get the support he needs in the lower house of Congress, where his coalition has the biggest minority and no party has a majority.

Fernandez's allies will nonetheless put up a fight.

"Now the extortion has been put before Congress," house member Axel Kicillof, who served as Fernandez's economy minister, wrote in an editorial.

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